The showing means Steyer has, once again, qualified for the coming week’s Democratic debate.
Steyer’s ability to transform his personal wealth into a spot onstage, while longtime elected officials such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have been unable to qualify, is a source of growing friction in the party — especially at a time when income inequality is a heated topic among Democrats.
In an October email to supporters, Booker wrote that Steyer’s “ability to spend millions of his personal wealth has helped him gain in the polls like no one else in this race.” Both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have accused billionaires of trying to buy the 2020 nomination, with Warren telling Bloomberg News last month, “I don’t believe that elections ought to be for sale.”
Steyer’s backers argue that his rise is being propelled by more than ads, especially in South Carolina, where he has built a substantial ground operation. Steyer has invested significant resources in South Carolina, making monthly visits to the state and appearing everywhere from barbershops and rural communities to historically black colleges and universities.
“Tom Steyer is doing what everybody should be doing,” said Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate. “He is in the black community. He’s dealing with the people who you need to carry the state, at least for the African American vote.”
Black voters, who make up most of the state’s Democratic electorate, still back former vice president Joe Biden by large margins. But in the latest South Carolina poll, Steyer jumped to second place among that demographic, garnering 16 percent support — though Biden still commands 43 percent support.
Overall, the Fox News poll showed Steyer at 15 percent in South Carolina, up 11 points since Fox’s last poll there in October. Biden retains a commanding lead in that state, with 36 percent support, while Sanders and Warren received 14 percent and 10 percent support, respectively.
Similar polling gains put Steyer just behind Biden and Sanders in Nevada, according to Fox.
Cordero credited Steyer’s organizing work for the polling boost. “It’s one thing to spend the money. It’s another thing to come into town and sit down and roll up your sleeves and listen,” he said.
Even so, it’s clear that Steyer’s rise has been boosted by his personal cash, and it comes as another billionaire, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, is spending even bigger sums in an effort to carve a place in the campaign. Steyer has dropped more than $116 million on television commercials, according to data from the Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, second only to Bloomberg’s $153 million. By comparison, their next-highest-spending primary opponents, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, have each spent about $11 million on ads.
Steyer spokesman Alberto Lammers acknowledged that the ads, which paint Steyer as an “outsider” who can take on Trump, have helped boost his name recognition in a short period of time.
But he says Steyer couldn’t have jumped in the polls without the campaign’s ground game. By comparison, Bloomberg, whose national commercials also appear in South Carolina but who is not campaigning in early states, registered only 2 percent support in the latest South Carolina poll.
For example, even when Steyer is not in South Carolina, a team of 82 staffers — among the largest there of all the campaigns — fans out across the state. Last October, at a tailgate for Allen University’s homecoming, Steyer’s campaign was one of three with a significant presence, distributing free T-shirts and stickers. About 90 percent of his organizers are African American, and more than half of them are South Carolina natives, organizing within 10 miles of where they were born, the campaign said.
“We’re literally organizing family, friends, neighbors. It’s been working, obviously,” said Brandon Upson, Steyer’s national organizing director. “If we were running ads and Tom was not saying something that connected with people, it wouldn’t matter if Tom was on every channel every day. It wouldn’t mean anything. I don’t think you can even talk about beating the ‘Biden firewall’ or whatever you want to call it without beating him on the ground.”
In addition to four offices in South Carolina and three in Nevada, the campaign is focused on building out operations for March and beyond, and will soon have an office open in every state voting on Super Tuesday — indicating Steyer plans to remain in the primary contest for the long haul.
But Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist, said it is unlikely Steyer’s efforts in Nevada and South Carolina — or his ability to self-fund — will matter if Iowa and New Hampshire suggest a close race between even just two other candidates.
“Money isn’t going to do anything,” Trippi said. “After the roaring thunder out of Iowa and New Hampshire happens, you can't knock down that thunder with money.”
The best-case scenario for Steyer, he said, is that the first two states produce results in which Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Biden are all clustered too closely together to declare a clear winner.
“You either are riding [momentum after Iowa and New Hampshire], or it’s so muddled and confused that your money can still help you break through,” Trippi said. “That’s what [Steyer] has to hope for . . . a four-way train wreck.”